Executional Variable

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Vigilant advertisers constantly seek ways to improve the effectiveness of their ads by tailoring executional variables in their campaigns. Executional variables, which comprise all the tools advertisers use to create a unique persuasive message, are divided into two major categories: executional formats and executional elements. Executional elements are all the tractable elements (e.g., signs, symbols and cues) advertisers have at their disposal; executional formats dictate how a message is presented to its audience.

More than 25 executional formats are found in advertising. A few clearly differ; others vary from their counterparts in subtle ways. Moreover, hybrid formats are often encountered, as advertisers may use more than one format in a single ad.

One common executional format, "announcer using narrative," employs voice-over or dialogue. Ford Motor Co., for example, used this format to explain a rebate on its Grand Marquis.

"Demonstration" typically employs a real or imagined scenario to show how a product or service is used. Sears, Roebuck & Co. used this format for several decades to demonstrate its Die Hard battery under torturous winter conditions.

The benefits of a brand also can be conveyed by such executional formats as:

  • "Close-ups," which focus on a particular attribute of interest to buyers, leaving out other attributes of the product.

  • "Testimonials," which emphasize support for a claim through advice from the spokesperson, who acts as the source of the message.

  • A "case history," which is a kind of testimonial that supports an advertiser's appeal by injecting an expert, novice, celebrity or charismatic or unusual character into a sketch that shows that character using the advertiser's brand to solve problems.

  • "Customer interviews" or endorsements, which feature customers who serve as spokespersons.

  • The "news announcement," which declares a dramatic technical breakthrough, an unusual promotional, a special price deal or some other major development or improvement in the product or service.

  • The "problem-solution" format, which presents a direct portrayal of how one brand solves a particular problem. The service or product becomes the solution.

  • The "comparative advertising" format, which directly or indirectly contrasts an advertiser's brand with competitive brands. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. used an indirect comparison based on physical measurement in contrasting the percentage of additives found in Winston cigarettes to the average amount of additives found in the top 10 U.S. non-menthol brands.

Comparative formats in advertising are illegal in some countries, but in the U.S. comparative advertising is encouraged under the "consumer's right to know" philosophy in consumer rights legislation. Advertisers that use the comparative format, however, must conform to numerous regulatory guidelines.

"Slice of life"

The "slice of life," or vignette, is usually a story about the lifestyles of product users that typically shows brand users enjoying life as they delight in the brand. FedEx Corp., for example, contrasted a sharply dressed, attractive junior executive who sent his company's package via Federal Express with another employee, portrayed as an untidy, slovenly bungler, who chose another delivery service.

In contrast, the "brand image montage" format focuses on life with or without the brand. The California Milk Board's "Got Milk" campaign, for example, demonstrated the hardship a family suffers when it runs out of milk.

Another common format, the "fear appeal," presents an anxiety-evoking situation to shake the audience out of its complacency, and the brand or company is presented as a solution to the problem.

Another format based on emotion is "humor." While humorous formats are intrusive and capture attention, they tend to wear out quickly. In addition, care must be taken in designing a humorous format because humor is a matter of personal preference. The California Milk Board discovered that Southern California's Hispanic mothers were not influenced by its "Got Milk" campaign because they did not see humor in a situation where a family ran out of milk: They believed a good mother would not run out of milk. The "mood/imagery" format associates a brand with a pleasant feeling or mood enjoyed by the audience.

The "song and dance spectacular" captures attention through its entertaining format, using festivity and gaiety to capture attention and possibly generate liking for the ad and brand.

Signs, symbols and cues

Signs, symbols and cues represent the second classification of executional variables, executional elements or stimuli. The most common classes of executional elements are the "basic appeal," the "source of the message" and the "slogan" or "positioning statement." Theme, tone of voice, seals and guarantees, and color also fall into this category.

A "basic appeal" builds interest in the advertiser's offering. There are at least six basic appeals, each with a unique selling proposition. "Direct, benefit-based brand claims" stress rational reasons for purchasing that derive directly from the brand's attributes.

"Feelings-based appeals" rely on subtle emotion, pleasant feelings, warmth and special moods to persuade the audience. Lane Furniture Co. used nostalgia to influence its audience with its advertisement depicting a woman using a Lane cedar chest to safeguard cherished mementos of her mother. Appeals that "prescribe social norms" link brands to the attainment of social rewards or the avoidance of social punishments.

"Brand image appeals" use human qualities, capabilities and personality traits as metaphors to characterize the brand. Maytag Corp., for example, uses its friendly repairman to convey dependability and reliability for its line of household appliances. "Appeals that precipitate action" entice people to take some sort of action, such as attend a seminar or event, call a company, visit a Web site or make a purchase. Finally, advertisers frequently combine basic appeals in using a "hybrid appeal."

The source of the message is a powerful executional stimulus. An effective source draws attention to the ad, provides trust and credibility, conveys brand knowledge and associates feelings or personality with a brand. Among the most common sources are celebrities, experts, satisfied users, cartoon and trade characters, professional models, unseen announcers, employees or managers and the brand or company itself.

When direct, benefit-based brand claims are conveyed, credibility is the key trait advertisers seek in a source. Source credibility consists of expertise (knowledge, experience, professional judgment and intelligence) and objectivity (honesty and integrity). Conversely, source attractiveness is the key for feelings-based appeals.

Slogans and jingles

A third executional element, slogans and jingles, also can convey the theme. A slogan is a catchy promotional phrase that conveys in a short, compelling and memorable way the brand's key selling proposition. Examples of slogans are BMW's "The ultimate driving machine" and Sears's "The softer side of Sears." Jingles combine lyrics and music in a short, catchy song that conveys a central message. An effective jingle causes people to sing along, involving them more deeply in the ad.

Color and white space are executional elements believed to help create an impression desired by advertisers, although research findings on the effects of colors are somewhat mixed. Tone of voice is varied by advertisers to establish a certain relationship between the audience and the brand.

Seals, warranties and guarantees are other forms of executional elements. In attempting to reduce buyers' level of perceived risk, advertisers sometimes use a seal of approval or a guarantee/warranty. For example, ads for General Motors Corp.'s GM Goodwrench Service Plus convey a lifetime guarantee on automobile parts and labor.

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